Bushra El-Turk is a British composer of Lebanese descent. Her music is distinctive for its Arabic as well as Western classical influences. Here she speaks about her new composition, to be premiered on Monday.
“When I was 17 a blackbird changed my life. It was just after the millennium. I woke up and this blackbird was twittering the same rhythm again and again. I took a piece of paper and a pencil and that rhythm turned into a whole symphony. As I was writing it down it came so naturally.”
In the years since that morning, Bushra El-Turk has emerged as a talented young British composer. Her string quartet Eating Clouds made the shortlist of the Aberdeen Music Prize/BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra competition in 2007. Then, in 2010, she composed music for a concert in the Banqueting House, Whitehall, which was attended by Prince Charles and received a standing ovation. Now she is directing “Eastern Voices; Western Echoes”, a concert by the Peace and Prosperity Trust which incorporates both Arabic and western classical musical traditions.
Bushra is well versed in western classical music, having learnt piano and cello from a young age before going on to study at the prestigious London music college, Guildhall. At the same time, she was always aware of Arabic music. “Because I was raised in London during the Lebanese civil war, my parents wanted me to live their values through music in the home. When the war ended I went to visit my family there and got much deeper into it.”
The upcoming concert aims to show how Arabic and Western music intertwine from a Levantine perspective. “I incorporated Arabic instruments with a symphony orchestra, Middle Eastern players with western contemporary classical textures and harmonies. I am taking a fragment from a very popular Lebanese tune, Tallou Hbabna. It’s a journey from Andalusian to modern times.”
Andalusia, now a popular holiday destination, was once Al-Andalus, the heart of Moorish Spain. It was also the gateway through which many instruments are believed to have first entered Europe – such as the lute and the guitar.
Although the importance of Andalusia in musical history may be well known, Bushra had to do a lot of research before she was prepared to adapt pieces from that era. “I can’t go into a project blindly without everything I do being justified. To justify why I am putting in a harmony. Tracking down when they were performed or anything about them was very difficult. But a lot of people I know are scholars. It helped to get information from them.”
As well as compositions, she has used instruments to illustrate the way that music has changed over time. Over the course of the programme, she explains, the sound of a string orchestra gradually creeps in before evolving into the modern symphony orchestra. “I mirror history through orchestration.”